"(T)he drug industry is gearing up for an assault on
Thus declared an article in last week's Business Week, a
fascinating and well-reported look into the pharmaceutical
industry's efforts - and financial stake - in bringing to market a
drug for autism spectrum disorders.
Autism appears in the news daily, in journals of medicine and
therapy, in legal and educational publications, in policy briefs.
But here it was in Business Week, between the stock quotes and a
running analysis on Kraft Foods' potential hostile takeover of
As we've seen with everything from high cholesterol to erectile
dysfunction, if there's a pill to be popped, the money isn't far
behind. And the market for autism is a potential bonanza for drug
Diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder rose by more than half from 2002 to 2006,
according to the CDC, and national studies released in the past
four months alone have pegged the number of affected children at 1 in 91, in October, and 1 in 110, in December.
Reporter Ellen Gibson also points out that, because autism is
most often diagnosed in young children, there is a near-lifetime
market for therapies -- which means big dollars for pharmaceutical
One decade from now there will be seven times as many autistics
entering the adult-services sector as there are today. The disorder
already costs the U.S. about $35 billion per year for special
education, medical care, and assisted living. If the drug industry
can devise better treatments, families and society will find a way
There is no F.D.A.-approved drug to treat autism itself, though
billions are spent each year on medications to treat some of its
symptoms, like anxiety, depression, seizures and
I spoke with Peter Bell, an executive vice president at Autism
Speaks, the nation's largest autism advocacy group. He says many
people affected by more severe forms of autism would welcome a
pharmaceutical approach, though he also pointed to the success of
early intervention programs like occupational and cognitive
"Many, many families are awaiting the day that there are better
treatments," Bell said. "Early intervention (has shown) promising
results ... and developing medication that can have similar types
of results is something that many people are interested in."
I'm not criticizing the search for an autism drug - neither the
drug companies financial interest nor the perhaps unrealistic hopes
of a "magic bullet" from those affected by autism. Far from it. In
my time at this magazine, I've met many families of children with
autism. In some of the more severe cases, they need all the help
they can get.
But the "by the numbers" approach this article took was
refreshing, and long overdue. For all the attention paid to it,
autism remains largely an emotional issue -- two sides screaming at
each other about vaccinations, doctors perplexed by a disease that
only gets more complicated the more we know about, and parents
everywhere alarmed by studies showing diagnoses on the rise. Every
now and then, it's good to turn down the heat, take a step back,
and look at issues like this from a new angle.
Kudos to Gibson and Business Week.
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